The Dakota Pipeline Protests Should Think Big

Yes, opposing the pipeline is important. But the protesters should turn the momentum into something larger.

Native Americans march to the site of a sacred burial ground that was disturbed by bulldozers building the Dakota Access Pipeline, near the encampment where hundreds of people have gathered to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's protest of the oil pipeline slated to cross the nearby Missouri River, September 4, 2016 near Cannon Ball, North Dakota.
Native Americans march to the site of a sacred burial ground that was disturbed by bulldozers building the Dakota Access Pipeline on Sept. 4 near Cannon Ball, North Dakota.

Robyn Beck/Getty Images

The Dakota Access Pipeline protests present a surreal sight: Native American groups are facing off against the National Guard riding in Humvees as well as private contractors with German Shepherds. It seems that the Andrew Jackson–era Trail of Tears has reincarnated itself as the North Dakota pipeline. Remember that the forced march of Cherokees from their southeastern homelands in 1838 was in response to the discovery of gold, the “Georgia gold rush.” Now the transportation of oil, the new liquid gold, is behind this more recent upset. The Standing Rock Sioux nation may not be expelled from its land, but the threats to its sacred sites and its drinking water are a violation just the same.

DAPL is designed to carry 570,000 barrels of Bakken crude oil per day from the Dakotas to Illinois. To make this journey, DAPL needs to cross the Missouri River. Initially, this crossing was supposed to take place just north of Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota. But engineers flagged the possibility of drinking water contamination if the pipeline were to leak. DAPL was therefore rerouted north of the Standing Rock reservation instead. The message is clear: While the risk of water contamination is not acceptable for Bismarckians, it is OK for the Sioux Indians.

There is an additional issue at stake. Sioux Indians claim that the pipeline goes through lands where their ancestors are buried. In most countries, desecrating graveyards is often viewed as heinous act; but apparently a different yardstick is being applied to DAPL.

The Sioux Indians have been joined by other Native American tribes/nations. The protesters have a vocal ally in environmental groups who recognize that disrupting fossil-fuel transportation is a clever and effective strategy for climate change mitigation.

What’s so special about pipelines? Fossil-fuel extraction is highly capital intensive, so disrupting even a portion of the revenue stream can cause havoc with the finances of the company. Pipelines make fossil-fuel companies vulnerable to protests. Not surprisingly, pipelines (along with the coal trains) are the new frontiers of environmental conflicts.

Why the overreaction from fossil-fuel companies to the DAPL protests? Environmental groups killed the Keystone XL Pipeline. Native American groups successfully blocked the Gateway Pacific Terminal in Cherry Point, Washington. This terminal would have allowed Peabody Energy to ship Powder River Basin coal to Asian markets. But the Lummi Nation argued that the Cherry Point terminal would adversely impact its fishing, in violation of its 1855 treaty with the federal government. And the Lummi Nation prevailed.

One might say that this victory was symbolic because it has not crippled Peabody Energy, which will now export coal to Asia through various terminals in British Columbia. It’s true that pipeline or not, fossil fuels will likely continue to be transported and that without the pipeline, they will be transported in other ways such as trains. But the precedent has been set that this is a way to stand up to this system, and so, regardless of whether it is the best means of stopping fossil-fuel extraction, it seems to be an effective strategy.

Unfortunately for the Standing Rock Sioux Indians, DAPL is not Cherry Point because they are not protected by any treaty. (Perhaps the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1851 might be relevant, but this is not clear.) In July, the Sioux Indians filed a complaint against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over its process for granting permits to DAPL. But in September, a federal judge denied the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s request for a temporary injunction, and in October, a federal appeals court allowed the ruling to stand.

The Standing Rock Sioux Nation has received some help from the federal government. In September, the Department of Justice, Department of the Interior, and Department of the Army asked the Energy Transfer Crude Oil Company (DAPL’s owner) to voluntarily pause all construction activity near Lake Oahe, which is at the boundary of the Standing Rock Reservation. President Obama has recognized the cultural and religious meaning of these protests and has directed the Army Corps to investigate rerouting DAPL.

As legal challenges have faltered and administrative outcomes remain uncertain, the Native groups have turned to the court of public opinion. There is large scale mobilization of Native American nations and tribes and activist groups, connecting the issue to broader environmental activism. The protests have spread outside Dakota. For example, in New York, groups are protesting outside banks that are financing the DAPL projects. This is a reminiscent of the Rainforest Action Network’s campaign against Citigroup for financing environmentally destructive projects in Africa and Latin America.

The DAPL protesters are most concerned with rerouting the pipeline. But they should set their sights on prospects bigger issues and not limit themselves to #NODAPL. They can leverage these protests to initiate a broader conversation on the continued neglect of Native American communities, and its ramifications for the environment and the future health of their nations and our planet. Perhaps Native American groups should study the success of Black Lives Matter in generating a discussion on racial injustice beyond police brutalities.

There is a powerful story to be told about environmental injustice. After all, the vulnerable populations seem to bear disproportionate costs of resource extraction without getting much in return. To communicate this effectively, DAPL protesters need a strong narrative and a new vocabulary. Red Lives Matter is a good start but is based on a borrowed idea—they must construct an original narrative.

Furthermore, Native groups must not be provoked into even small acts of violence. The state and fossil industry are vastly superior in their coercive power. Even random violence undermines the moral case the Native American tribes have made.

Native Americans are disadvantaged in another way: They do not live in swing states and do not have the electoral strength to influence presidential or congressional politics. They also have powerful opponents. In addition to the fossil-fuel industry, they confront organized labor: Teamsters’ General President Jim Hoffa has written to the governor of North Dakota seeking protection for union workers from DAPL protesters.

Native Groups need friends and environmental groups are their natural allies. While the Sioux Indians may seek rerouting of the pipeline, for environmentalists, this is not a solution to the problems of climate change and environmental degradation. Both groups need a coordinated strategy such as extending the environmental justice movement to protect resource extraction areas. By some accounts, native lands hold a large share of uranium, gold, silver, cadmium, platinum, and manganese reserves. And in an increasingly thirsty country, they also hold about 20 percent of the nation’s freshwater. This is where some leverage might lie.

The Dakota Pipeline need not become a new Trail of Tears. For Native American groups, DAPL protests provide the platform to initiate a social movement that asks basic questions about environmental justice and the rights of native communities in resource-hungry systems. For environmental groups, DAPL protests offer the opportunity to focus attention on the social and environmental costs of fossil-fuel addiction. If they work together, these groups could create a partnership that pervades beyond the Dakota standoff, and advance each other’s agenda in meaningful ways.